A new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa took social media and the national press by storm on Sept. 14 when a number of news outlets published extracts from Peril, describing how Gen. Mark Milley, whom former President Donald Trump appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contemplated and prepared for the unthinkable in the final days of Trump’s presidency. The potential repercussions of what Costa and Woodward describe are truly enormous.
But how much of the book is accurate? How much of it is exaggerated or even entirely fabricated? Will Milley himself comment publicly, and will anyone attempt to verify some of the more fantastical and disturbing claims made by the authors? Or will Woodward’s book, like all his previous Trump hit-jobs, sink without a trace after a couple of weeks?
To summarize the juicy details that have everyone’s hair on fire, Milley apparently got it into his head sometime in October 2020 – so, before the presidential election – that Trump had become so unstable he was likely to launch a nuclear attack on China. It seems, from Woodward’s account of events, the Chinese shared Milley’s fear. This prompted the Joint Chiefs chairman to call his counterpart at the People’s Liberation Army, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to assure him that the United States was not about to conduct “kinetic operations” against China. In fact, Woodward claims, the general called Li again on Jan. 8, two days after the pro-Trump demonstration in Washington, D.C.
Colluding With China?
That wasn’t the worst of it, though. According to the new book, Milley told Li, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
It is entirely possible that the word most often used in America on Sept. 14 – at least among those on the political right – was the word “treason.” It is in fact incredibly difficult to be convicted of treason, and that is probably a good thing. Without getting into the legal weeds of the matter, the one thing that should be pointed out – so that cooler heads might prevail – is that nothing Milley allegedly did or said would probably rise to the level of treason. That said, Milley may have been guilty of collusion with China (not a legal word but a very popular one these days). Even more serious, he may have made a promise to the Chinese general to commit treason in the future.
It is incredibly difficult to imagine such a conversation took place. Quite apart from the fact that the first rule of military leadership is you don’t give the enemy advance warning when you are going to attack, Milley’s commitment to Li, if true, would have been catastrophic in several ways.
Had the U.S. military staged for an attack on China or Chinese military assets and had Milley followed through on his commitment to provide the Chinese with advance warning, hundreds or even thousands of American service members might have lost their lives in an assault upon an enemy that was already prepared to meet it. Even worse, the Chinese could conceivably have been so spooked by Milley’s calls that they might have thought it best to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States.
Thus, if these telephone conversations really took place, and if they have been reported accurately by the authors of this new book, then Milley’s actions were apocalyptically reckless. It is stunning to imagine that the most senior military officer of the U.S. armed forces would have acted with such abandon and stupidity.
Former Acting DNI Doubtful
Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence (DNI) under Trump, dismissed the book’s claim in a tweet:
“Bob Woodward has become the Michael Wolff of Washington DC. It’s hard to believe anything the two of them write. Trump isn’t a war starter and I don’t believe Milley thought he was.”
The former acting DNI does raise one very good point: Trump did not drag the United States into any new wars, unlike his two immediate predecessors, and sought to extricate America from its long-running conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which had ultimately become aimless and failed attempts at nation-building. The very idea that Trump was even contemplating a military attack against China, something that would have triggered a global war and almost certainly brought nuclear devastation to regions of the globe – quite possibly including parts of the United States – is, on its face, utterly ridiculous.
The Woodward book goes on to describe other instances of Milley conspiring, it seems, to usurp Trump’s authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But will any of these claims be corroborated? That remains to be seen. If Milley acted as Woodward describes, then he was going rogue – perhaps even contemplating a coup. His behavior simply could not be downplayed or dismissed. Punitive action of the most serious nature would be called for. Only time will tell whether the situation was as calamitous as Woodward describes, or this whole thing is just one more bout of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.